Wednesday 24 January 2018

Dublin, Ireland and the Empire

One hundred years ago in 1913, Ireland was part of the British Empire – and most people here were quite happy about it, writes Gary Granville

Gary Granville

Looking back now, 1913 can be seen as the start of a revolutionary decade in Ireland. The decade included the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, events that led to the foundation of the state.

But as the year 1913 began, there was little sign of what was to come. Ireland was a peaceful place, a country very much a part of the British Empire.

Since 1801, Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, ruled by the British government in London. The people of Ireland therefore shared the same laws, and the same army, as the rest of the United Kingdom.

The overall head of state was the king, but he nominated a representative in Ireland who was called the Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant. He had an official home in the Viceregal Lodge in the Phoenix Park. However, the Viceroy had no real power. He acted only on the advice of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who ran Ireland from his offices in Dublin Castle on behalf of the government in London.

The most powerful person in Ireland around 1913 was, therefore, the Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell. Birrell was an Englishman, a well-known writer and a good administrator.

For a member of the upper classes in Dublin in 1913, an invitation to the Viceregal Lodge would have been considered the highest honour. The Viceroy and his wife, Lord and Lady Aberdeen, were very popular. They took part in social events of all kinds, mainly parties and balls, but also took an interest in charity work, and encouraged other people to do so as well.

The Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, however, was not so popular. Fashionable society considered him dull. But then he had far more serious problems to take up his time – it was a period of growing uncertainty in Ireland.


Since its introduction in 1801, the Act of Union had been opposed by many people in Ireland. In the 1880s, Charles Stewart Parnell had succeeded in forming the 'Home Rule Party' with support from some of the Irish members of the London parliament. 'Home Rule' meant the setting up of an Irish parliament that would manage all the affairs of Ireland while still remaining part of the United Kingdom. Parnell died in 1891, but the Home Rule party carried on and by 1913, with John Redmond as its leader, it seemed as if they might at last succeed in forcing the British government to grant Home Rule.

If all the Irish MPs had agreed upon Home Rule, then the problem might have been easily solved. In the London parliament of 670 members, only 105 were Irish. Only 81 of these belonged to Redmond's party; four of them were independent, and the remaining twenty Irish MPs were unionists, who stood firmly for the union with Britain and against Home Rule. They were led by Sir Edward Carson, a prominent Dublin lawyer. The main support for the Unionists came from the north-eastern part of Ireland. They formed a minority in the whole of Ireland and they were determined never to become part of an Irish State.

In January 1913, the Ulster Volunteers were formed, with Carson as their leader. Their aim was to resist, by armed force if necessary, any attempt to introduce Home Rule. The most serious political problem in Ireland in 1913 was seen to be the conflict between the Home Rule supporters and the unionists.

But there were other fresh developments as well. Since the late 1800s a sense of national identity had begun to make itself felt. Organisations like the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had grown in popularity around the country. These movements aimed to revive interest in Gaelic culture and sport. The idea of a separate Gaelic nation was growing among a small but increasing number of people.

In 1905 Arthur Griffith had started the Sinn Féin movement, with the aim of setting up an Irish parliament and taking this as the first step towards breaking all contact with the United Kingdom. Griffith condemned Redmond's party for taking seats in the London parliament. His policy was that all Irish MPs who were elected to London should refuse to take up their seats and that instead they should set up their own parliament in Dublin.

Some people went further than Griffith. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was determined to use force to set up an independent state. Their leaders, Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada, were secretly planning for revolution.

However, there was little popular support for these groups among the general population of Ireland. For instance, at a by-election in north Leitrim in 1908, Sinn Féin got less than one-third of the votes. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League, the GAA and other groups continued to work at extending their support and changing public opinion.


While the great events of international affairs rarely touched the lives of ordinary Dubliners, the city still enjoyed occasions of pomp and glory. Visits by the king and queen were the greatest of these occasions, and such visits occurred in the early years of the twentieth century.

In July 1907, King Edward VII and his family paid a visit to the city, and the event was a memorable one. Landing in Kingstown Harbour (now Dún Laoghaire), he paraded in triumph into the city and on to the Phoenix Park where he stayed with Lord and Lady Aberdeen in the Viceregal Lodge. Cheering crowds lined the streets, flags waved and bunting flew over the royal procession. It was a great occasion for the people of the city, rich and poor alike.

Three years later, King Edward died. His son George V succeeded to the throne and the coronation took place in June 1911. He and his family embarked on a special coronation tour of the kingdom, Dublin being one of the first cities they visited. The Times of London commented that it was fitting that this should be so, as the Irish people loved to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown.

George's visit was similar to his father's four years before, and the people of Dublin did indeed show their appreciation of the occasion. The Irish Times devoted its entire front page to a 'céad míle fáilte' to the royal family. There were some people who objected to the idea of welcoming an English king on Irish soil, but most were glad of the opportunity to celebrate. When he left Dublin, George took with him the memory of a peaceful city of the kingdom.


The years before 1913 saw the emergence of the 'Labour Movement' throughout Britain and Europe. Workers had organised themselves into trade unions and were campaigning for better wages and working conditions. Bitter disputes broke out between workers and employers. There were frequent strikes and lockouts, and a great wave of industrial unrest hit nearly every country in Europe.

In Britain between 1900 and 1910, the labour movement developed into a powerful pressure group. The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of the workers in parliament. The main principles of socialism were spreading among the workers: this doctrine claimed that workers should own and control the wealth they produced.

Socialists in different countries called on all workers to unite against their bosses and rulers, and to claim power for themselves. A minority of socialists felt that an armed revolution of workers was essential. In Britain and in Europe, the rights of the working classes were slowly being established without a revolution. The trade unions were effective in improving the position of workers through tough bargaining and strikes where necessary.

Ireland seemed to be an exception to this general pattern. The labour movement was slow to gain a footing here. In Great Britain, the trade union movement grew most quickly amongst skilled industrial workers. Apart from the Belfast region, Ireland had little heavy industry at that time and so the trade unions developed slowly. The general workers, without any special training, were often employed on a casual basis. They were not in a strong enough position to join together to form a trade union.

That was the position in Ireland early in 1913. But all that was about to change.

Irish Independent

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